Walter Dallas, ‘Heartbeat’ of Philadelphia Theater, Dies at 73


Walter Dallas, a powerful force in African-American theater, chiefly as a director but also as a playwright, musician and teacher, died on May 3 at his home in Atlanta. He was 73.

Maurice E. Haynes, a cousin, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.

In a career that spanned more than half a century, Mr. Dallas was recognized for his work Off Broadway and in regional theater. But he was best known for his leadership of Freedom Theater in Philadelphia, one of the nation’s top African-American companies, from 1992 to 2008.

“Walter was the heartbeat of Philadelphia theater,” Owen Brown Jr., who taught at Freedom, wrote on Facebook.

Mr. Dallas also worked at the Public Theater and the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, as well as at the Yale Repertory Theater, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and Baltimore Center Stage.

He directed more than 25 world premieres, including August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, a production that Time magazine named one of the 10 best theatrical events of 1995. Vincent Canby, writing in The New York Times, called it first rate.

Mr. Dallas worked with James Baldwin, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, among many other well-known black writers and actors. The last play he directed, Richard Wesley’s “Autumn” — a drama that examines politicians’ responsibilities to the public — had its premiere in Brooklyn at the Billie Holiday Theater in 2016. It won six awards from the Audience Development Committee, which honors black theater and its artists in New York City.

His artistic reach extended to writing. Along with Ntozake Shange and Allan Slutsky, he wrote the script for “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” Paul Justman’s well-received 2002 documentary about the Funk Brothers, the unheralded studio musicians largely responsible for the Motown sound.

He was also an award-winning playwright. His “Lazarus, Unstoned,” based on the biblical tale of Lazarus and accompanied by music including everything from Stravinsky to Aretha Franklin’s rendition of the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep,” debuted to popular and critical acclaim at Freedom in 2002.

His signature as a director was asking actors to “find the joy and play the positive,” the actress Caroline Clay, who studied and worked with him for more than 30 years, said in an interview.

“For him, joy was serious business, especially as a black man who had grown up in the segregated South,” Ms. Clay said. “An actor would start a passage and break into tears, and he would say: ‘There is power in sorrow and trauma, but there’s so much more power in digging deep and asking what brings you joy. Then the tears and the angst will come.’”

Walter Edward Dallas was born on Sept. 15, 1946, in Atlanta. His father was never in the picture. His mother, Katie Sue (Ison) Dallas, a waitress and later a seamstress, developed cancer before he was born, and he was raised by his mother’s sister, Lillian Mae Whatley.

“From 9 months old, he was a member of our family,” said Ms. Haynes, one of Ms. Whatley’s daughters.

In addition to Ms. Haynes, Mr. Dallas is survived by his husband, Paul Siler.

His extended family — aunts, uncles and cousins — was a musical bunch, and Walter was reared on the Modern Jazz Quartet, Sarah Vaughan, Dakota Staton and Miles Davis. He learned to play piano, organ and viola; directed the children’s choir at church; and sang in church choirs. He also read constantly, Ms. Haynes said, secreting himself in the attic where all the household books were stashed.

He loved the theater from a young age. He would dress up old Coca-Cola bottles as characters in his plays, which he staged for friends and family.

“When I thought about what I wanted to be when I grew up,” he once told Steve Cohen, a cultural historian in Philadelphia, “I realized that I already was what I was going to be” — that is, a director, and one who would always have music in the background, if not the foreground.

Mr. Dallas graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1968; studied briefly at Harvard Divinity School; spent some time developing the artistic arm of the Black Panthers in Berkeley, though he was not a member; and received a master’s in fine arts from the Yale School of Drama in 1971. He also studied dance and theater in traditional African societies at the University of Ghana at Legon.

In 1983 he created the theater program at the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts (now part of the University of the Arts). He was also directing at Freedom Theater and at the Philadelphia Drama Guild at the University of Pennsylvania’s Zellerbach Theater. And he was guest directing around the world.

In 1992, he became Freedom’s artistic director. During his lengthy tenure there, he professionalized the operation, making the theater an Actors Equity house. When it opened a state-of-the-art 300-seat auditorium in 2001, his first play was Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms,” with a black cast.

In homage to his adopted city, he appeared in Jonathan Demme’s movie “Philadelphia” (1993), in a small uncredited role as Denzel Washington’s father.

Mr. Dallas left Philadelphia in 2008 to become senior artist in residence and co-director of the M.F.A. program in performance at the University of Maryland. He also took up portrait photography.

“I’m a director, I’m a playwright, I’m a musician and recently I’ve become a photographer,” he told Mr. Cohen. “I play a couple of instruments. I teach. Life is full, and exciting. I’ve lived a charmed life.”

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